With the threat of Mussolini's army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid in Kidane and his wife Aster's household. Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie's army, rushes to mobilize his strongest men before the Italians invade. His initial kindness to Hirut shifts into a flinty cruelty when she resists his advances, and Hirut finds herself tumbling into a new world of thefts and violations, of betrayals and overwhelming rage. Meanwhile, Mussolini's technologically advanced army prepares for an easy victory. Hundreds of thousands of Italians--Jewish photographer Ettore among them--march on Ethiopia seeking adventure.As the war begins in earnest, Hirut, Aster, and the other women long to do more than care for the wounded and bury the dead. When Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile and Ethiopia quickly loses hope, it is Hirut who offers a plan to maintain morale. She helps disguise a gentle peasant as the emperor and soon becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms against the Italians. But how could she have predicted her own personal war as a prisoner of one of Italy's most vicious officers, who will force her to pose before Ettore's camera?What follows is a gorgeously crafted and unputdownable exploration of female power, with Hirut as the fierce, original, and brilliant voice at its heart. In incandescent, lyrical prose, Maaza Mengiste breathes life into complicated characters on both sides of the battle line, shaping a heartrending, indelible exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.
While fascism was getting stronger in Europe and the world was slowly moving towards the disaster of the WWII, Benito Mussolini decided to correct an old wrong - 40 years earlier, in 1895-1896, Italy lost its war with Ethiopia for the African country's territory (and independence) and that had never sat well with the Italians - both at home and in Italian Eritrea. So in 1935 he declares the second Italo-Ethiopian War and sends his men marching. And the world is about to burn.
But we won't see the Italians for a while - the novel opens with Hirun - a young woman who, after she lost her family, now works for Kidane and Aster - a wealthy couple which had lost their only child, a son, on the same day she came to their household. Kidane and Hirun had known each other for a long time - although it will be much later in the novel that we will know the full extent of that statement - but Aster sees in her a competition and treats her accordingly.
The viewpoint the story it told from shifts occasionally although early in the novel it is mainly Hirun's. And in these uneasy days come the rumors that the Italians are coming and Kidane, as the local lord (there is probably a better word than this but that one conveys the meaning) needs to equip an army and defend the country. And Aster and Hirun will not allow to be left behind.
And when the Italians arrive, we are meeting the second protagonist of that framing story - Ettore Navarra, a Jewish Italian soldier whose job is to take pictures. His commanding officer is a bully who gets worse with time (especially after an attempts is made on his life) and the cruelty of war replaces most of the domestic drama that this all started with. Most but not all - because some of the worst cruelties will come from the hands of the people who one had known for a long time.
The structure of the story does not make much sense until you start seeing the references to Aida and you realize that you are looking at an opera - with chorus and interludes, with acts and scenes. And somewhere in between the acts are the photos - they are never printed, they are just described, as a still photo that is shown at the beginning of a still movie. And the opera and the photo album are so intertwined that they make a complete whole out of the parts.
In her note at the end of the novel Mengiste says that she wanted to tell the lost stories of the women that participated in the Italo-Ethiopian War (including her own great-grandmother), the forgotten fighters that had to go back home and be forgotten when it was all over. The chosen format helps - without that operatic structure, I would not considered that a successful attempt (we hear very little about most of the women) but it is all there -- partially nameless (and representing all women), partially on the actions of Astrid and Hirun and Fifi (a prostitute by day, a resistance leader by night) and the cook). And it also allows the rise of an unexpected hero - a man who had been called Noone by his own mother and who ends up being everything for everyone. By the end of the novel, roles will be reversed and the everything will want to be the noone -- and will try to be.
And as the novel progresses, you learn to recognize the parts -- in the Interludes we see Haile Selassie and his reactions, in the photo album we see most of the cruelty, the chorus adds the missing context and the acts and scenes carry the story. And while the story is careening towards its known end - the occupation of Ethiopia and then its liberation - the life of Ettore is also careening towards the abyss. Being a Jew is not the most healthy thing to be towards the end of the 30s.
And those stories intertwine -- changing the roles of the involved to the point where when someone talks for the future or we get a glimpse of it, we cannot tell who is the prisoner and who is the guard; we cannot tell who we need to be sympathetic to.
I liked the novel quite a lot but I wish an editor had cut some of it. Not the action - but the prose. Mengiste tends to be over-wordy in places where it seems like a single word will be enough (although she can also be economical with her prose where it actually matters). There are whole sections which read like an exercise in style and not as a part of the novel -- they are there mainly to show her way with words. Which works well now and then but when it happens every few pages, you wish someone had edited them out; by the middle of the novel they start being tiresome, despite their beauty.
For a novel about a war, where noone exits unscathed, it is a surprisingly upbeat one. Giving up, while considered often, is never an option and finding one's way through is considered the only way ahead -- a sentiment that the parents of all our main characters seem to have had - thus linking them again into an invisible net. And the cruelty does not always come from the enemy -- on either side.
I would still recommend the novel, even if it may be too wordy for a lot of people.
The style was strange and was difficult to get used to: very lyrical in extended descriptions but no differentiation when people were speaking, i.e., no apostrophes. Many of the foreign words were explained, but I couldn't visualize the articles of clothing they wore; the author used Amharic terms she didn't explain. It wouldn't go amiss to read some background on the Italo-Ethiopian conflict before reading the novel. The author based the heroine on one of her ancestors, which was another point of interest.
As the invasion occurs, the women first take care of the sick and wounded, but soon Aster is also a leader as the women take on an increasingly active role in the warfare. At one point, Selassie fleas the country and another man who is a peasant looks so much like him that he is used as a "Shadow King" for Selassie.
Hirut, Aster, Kidane, and several other "rebels" are the main characters along with an Italian photographer, Ettore. Ettore is Jewish and is becoming aware of his own father's history and the fact that Jews will soon be persecuted in Italy.
I enjoyed most of the writing in this book and it certainly is a piece of history that I knew nothing about. There are many foreign phrases (usually can be easily understood, but at other times, overwhelming). Due to the complexity of the background to this war, I probably didn't appreciate as much as I should have. Best to just first read a Wikipedia article about the war to get background.